Along the shore of Lake Superior and across wild lands of the north, stars illuminate the darkness. Even the Milky Way, an elusive sight in urban areas, appears as a misty band of infinity and wonder.
In an electrified terrestrial world, star (real star) sightings are growing more rare. To escape the light pollution that dims nighttime shows, increasing numbers of travelers are arranging trips specifically designed for dark-sky encounters, hoping to engage in an activity that connects us with our most distant relatives: marveling at the night sky. It is called astrotourism, and it is just one of the travel trends taking hold in the new decade.
In places across Minnesota, from southern prairies to northern forests, dark skies await star gazers. Other travel trends can also find a home here. There’s a growth in camping (and so many places in the state to pitch a tent). Cruise lines continue to ply new waters beyond oceans (including the Great Lakes). Train trips could be on the rise (and Amtrak’s Empire Builder cuts across Minnesota). Here are five travel trends — that can be experienced near or far — in 2020 and for years to come. See page G4.
Stars are rising
It takes hundreds of years for light from the North Star to reach Earth — and the quick clicks of electric switches to dim it from view.
Seen clearly, stars literally twinkle, dazzling in their magnitude, but urban light often drowns out their show. That’s why more people are booking trips with intentions of viewing the stars and northern lights, from Norwegian cruises with astronomers on board, to stays at a Namibia hotel with skylights above beds and excursions in Chile’s dark Atacama Desert. In Minnesota, we have another option: Drive north.
We’ve long known that vast stretches of the sky above us shine with meteors, northern lights and the Milky Way. Now, a consortium of parks that rim Minnesota’s border with Canada are working to create one of the largest dark-sky reserves in the world, with certification from the International Dark-Sky Association. Voyageurs National Park, headquartered in International Falls, Minn., the adjacent Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, which borders the BWCA, have all applied for dark-sky status.
“Quetico fully expects dark-sky status by this fall,” said Dennis Larson of Starry Skies Lake Superior, a nonprofit in Duluth that works to protect our view of the night sky around the lake. “A whole lot of other parks are piling on, such as Le Verendrye, near Quetico,” he said. “When all the designations are made, it could be the largest international dark-sky region in the world.”
On the North Shore, Grand Marais, Minn., has a dark-sky festival every December, when nights grow long. The event kicks off with a few moments of complete darkness, when the city turns off its lights.
“Anytime you can see the stars and the northern lights, it’s a good time to be outside,” Larson said.
Trains are trending
With plastics bobbing in oceans, the world warming and ocean levels rising, travelers are taking stock — and making adjustments.
We can’t all sail across the ocean like teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg — that could really eat up some vacation days — but growing numbers of people are considering sustainable ways to travel. That means train travel could be on the rise. Even before her transatlantic sailing feat, Thunberg made headlines in Europe for taking a two-day train trip instead of flying from Rome to London, where she addressed Parliament.
In Thunberg’s home country, Sweden, flight shaming is flourishing; the new phenomenon could be fueling the uptick in train chic.
Europe, with its rail lines crisscrossing the continent, makes travel by train easy.
Though options are less robust than in Europe, Amtrak can get us from the Twin Cities to Seattle, New York City, New Orleans and other top spots. Of course, such trips require our embrace of another travel trend: slow travel. But speedier trains are planned for the new decade.
Amtrak’s chief executive, Richard Anderson, the former chief of Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines, is hoping to speed up train travel. The man who knows this region well is also a proponent of a proposed St. Paul-to-Duluth route, the Northern Lights, and of adding a second train between the Twin Cities and Chicago.
Closer to fruition are high-speed trains that are also more energy-efficient. New lighter trains being built for Amtrak’s busy Northeast corridor will reduce energy consumption by at least 20%, according to Amtrak. The trains will launch in 2021.
Hawaii draws us in
Southwest Airlines began flying to Hawaii last year, and the number of tourists on the islands hit an all-time high. That raises a chicken-and- (sunny side up) egg question. Surely, the low-cost carrier jumped into the market because tourists were flocking to Hawaiian beaches. It’s just as likely that some sun-seekers headed to the islands because they found a bargain airfare.
It doesn’t matter which came first: This quintessential American tropical paradise continues to lure travelers. The first three-quarters of 2019 saw nearly 8 million visitors to the islands, an increase of 5.5 % over the previous year, according to the Hawaiian government.
A recent survey by Plymouth-based Travel Leaders, a national network of travel agents, found Hawaii topping travelers’ wish list of U.S. destinations.
Brian Hegarty, vice president of marketing with Travel Leaders, noted a few reasons Hawaii is such a strong draw — and will likely remain so.
Almost two-thirds of people who visit Hawaii return. “They go there, they love it and they return again — and their friends and family notice and decide they should check it out, too,” he said.
Hegarty also pointed to the diversity within the islands, including urban Honolulu and the wild beauty of Kauai. “It isn’t just one destination,” he said.
The fact that this palm-tree, blue-ocean location is part of the United States also boosts its popularity. It offers familiarity, from dollars to brand-name hotels and a sense of safety in an uncertain world.
Cruises ply more waters
Cruises are floating more travelers’ boats these days.
“More than 66% of Generation X and 71% of millennials have a more positive attitude about cruising compared to two years ago,” according to the Cruise Line International Association’s report on the state of cruising in 2020.
The association reported that numbers of cruisers increased almost 7% from 2017 to 2018; for North American travelers, it was a 9% increase.
One reason: Cruise lines are offering a wider array of options, beyond the classic Caribbean cruise. Mediterranean cruises saw the most growth. River cruises continue to expand, and Viking, the company that got its start bringing tourists to European waterways, just announced the addition of two more ships destined for Antarctica, the Arctic and the Great Lakes. One route starting in 2022 will make Duluth a port of call.
Viking has added more than 60 river cruise ships in the last 8 years and will launch seven more in 2020. Across the industry, more than 20 ships are slated to debut in 2020, and more are coming in subsequent years.
Camping on the rise
More than 7.2 million households in the U.S. have started camping over the past five years, according to the 2019 North American Camping Report of the Kampgrounds of America. That’s a total of 78.8 million families heading out to the woods, the report says. A growing number of them are millennials.
Why this increasing camping craze? With the cost to reserve a campsite at Minnesota state parks starting at $16 per night, sleeping in the woods is relatively inexpensive. Plus, research has shown that being outside reduces our blood pressure and helps with our overall health. That makes for powerful motivation. For the less motivated or uninitiated, though, there are easy ways to dip a toe into camping (and possibly, a campsite lake): glamping and camper cabins count, too.